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Defensive Stand:
The Role of the Criminal Defense Attorney (Part 1)

Defensive Stand: The Role of the Criminal Defense Attorney
(Part 2)
Your Criminal Justice System in Action
District Court Judges' look at the Criminal Justice System

September 9, 2020
The Post Newspaper

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of eight columns on the criminal justice system in Galveston County and the second from the defense attorney’s perspective.

As noted earlier, our criminal justice system guarantees every defendant the right to legal representation and a fair trial.  Criminal defense attorneys play a critical part in this process.

Misdemeanors verses Felonies:
First some definitions:
- First degree felonies have a possible sentence of 5-99 years,
- Second degree felonies, 2-20 years,
- Third degree, 2-10 years, and
- State Jail felonies, six months-two years in a state prison.
- Class A misdemeanors, up to a year in jail
- Class B, up to six months, and
- Class C, up to a $500 fine.

Most criminal defense attorneys handle misdemeanors and felony cases. County Courts at Law handle Class A and B misdemeanors.  District Courts hear cases above that level.  “Class A and B misdemeanors are important because they can impact a person’s professional license or be used against the defendant as an aggravating circumstance in a future trial,” Byron Fulk, a criminal defense attorney, said. For example, if the person is a truck driver or an airplane pilot, they could lose their license and be fired.  

Jury or Bench Trials:

About 5% of cases actually go to trial, 95% are pled out. A defendant has the right to go before a judge in what is called a “bench trial” or to request a jury trial.  Typically, defendants choose the latter, however this depends upon what judge is assigned and even where the case is being tried. For example, in counties like Brazoria where juries tend to be very conservative; a bench trial may be more favorable to a defendant.

Jury Selection:
In County Courts there are six jurors and the prosecution and defense can use up to three preemptive strikes.  In District Courts there are twelve jurors and up to ten may be stricken.  Preemptive strikes can be for any reason other than race or gender.

There’s no limit to the number of jurors who can be stricken “for cause,” e.g., when a person is biased.  “I might ask, ‘If the defendant is found guilty of DWI could you sentence him to probation?’  Those who answer no I would move to strike for cause,” Fulk said.  
“I am typically looking for ‘virgin jurors,’ people who have never served on a jury before and who will listen to my arguments,” Fulk continued.

Officer of the Court:
As an “Officer of the Court” I must always behave well and be truthful.  “If I know the answer to a question that could potentially hurt my client’s case, I will not ask it,” Fulk said.  “But again, my role is not to seek justice, but instead to offer up a zealous defense for my client.”   

The Role of Faith:
In summing up,” Fulk concluded, “I would find this line of work very stressful without the faith in have in the Lord. I don’t know how I could do this job without it.  A lot of married attorney’s end up divorced or with alcohol issues.  Without the undergirding of faith, people in my line of work tend to burn out.”

Author and Columnist
Photo of Bill (Sarge) Sargent
September 9, 2020